|MATTER OF DESIRE|
Curatorial text for exhibition “Matter of Desire” at Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT), in 2012
By Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros
The work of Xawery Wolski (Warsaw, Poland, 1960) is the result of a long-term research process centered not only on a formal quest, but an investigation upon matter as well. Bronze, clay and—a few years back—paper, have been the main materials for his work; through his hands, they come about exploring different dimensions and portraying an unusual expressiveness. MATERIA DEL DESEO (MATTER OF DESIRE) is an ambitious gathering of the works created by Wolski over the past two decades. This is the first occasion in which some of the works exposed—though produced by the same artist—coexist under the same roof.
The visitor is greeted by one of his most ambitious works: MROK. A monumental sculpture made out of wire that comes together shaped as a cloud. The ethereal qualities of its subject collide with the material rigidness of the wire that conforms it. An inner drawing grows from within while embodying the thousand curves that intertwine in order to sustain themselves. Sharing the same hall, another huge drawing—this one created with ink on paper—(possibly one of the biggest drawings made by Wolski up to date) conveys one of the most recurring artistic languages active in his everyday processes, though rarely included in exhibitions of his work.
For many years, drawing has been one of the key foundations of his work. Without a doubt, drawing can be considered as the seminal artistic discipline from where the rest derive in different expressive explorations. In his works on paper we find the most delicate strokes, attentive to the smallest details, while saturated with repetitions and frequencies that compose its wholeness in an almost obsessive manner. As if they were automatic drawings, they create possible worlds out of impossible geographies.
For example, the circles made of granite, are worked with the polished edge of a diamond. The detail and precision accomplished in each of its forms attains laudable levels that, nevertheless, go far beyond the aim of exposing its own virtuosity and rejoicing with easy praise; their real aim drives upon an insatiable formal research about the different qualities materials can render. Circles created in various diameters receive carved lines on their surfaces that cover the blackness of their mirror-like appearance, embracing their traces as a newfound skin.
Wolski’s inquiring gaze has learned to undress everyday objects from everything he considers superficial; by doing so, he beckons us to pay attention to the things that surround us. This is why he magnifies them and blows them out of proportion, such is the case of the chain that hangs from the ceiling as if grasping the significance of the space it now inhabits. Attentive to the human body and its endless connotations in art, Wolski works about it from diverse platforms. One of them, a peripheral approach, gathers long dresses made out with pumpkin seeds; necklaces made with colorines (red flowers of a Mexican tree called ‘Colorín’) and silk threads; painted clay beads, or a typical tzalan (shawl-like), composed by miniature fish bones. An important array of white dresses has been assembled in the same space. Ironically, its great force resides in their fragility and transparent qualities.
Wolski addresses directly the body as a theme by recreating each one of the parts that compose our vulnerable anatomy. Their expressive and formal synthesis enables these evocative organic machineries to coexist with their natural pairings—nature motifs that present themselves only after a scrupulous dissection that rescues nothing but its most basic origins. The importance of the work of Xawery Wolski resides in having accomplished a distinctive and singular aesthetic. All has been born from clay, drawing, carved stone, and the fictionalized body. Now, every one of his objects is a symbolic reference of that which first inspired them. They all share similar stories, though always told in a different manner.
Curator: Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros
Traducción Español-Inglés: M. Quiroz
|A PROJECT TO ATLANTICA|
Atlántica magazine No. 28, Spain, winter 2001, pag. 68-75
By Antonio Zaya
Links, spaces, beads, these rosaries or light mandalas, empty in series, going beyond genetic geometry, beyond draw-thread embroidery, beyond their own weave and weft, are ancestral geometry, the degree zero of the work of xawery wolski. We could consider this project to be the origins or me luminous celli upon which he weaves the anthropomorphic and polymorphic aspect of his sculptural elements and his human tools, his votive offerings and organs. All of which offers us creation par excellence and the subject matter of which dreams are made.
|MEMORY OF CLAY|
Platja d’Aro. August 2004
Translated by Michelle Suderman
By Antonio Zaya
When Xawery Wolski left the Judeo-Christian heart of Europe to come to the American continent, he had already chosen his main instrument of work—one that came from a millenary aesthetic order: the memory of clay. This memory, which would later become American, is made of earth and water. When added to his European memory—his ancient memory—it is nothing less than an unnamed form of clay’s rebirth as a living entity. It is a language of work, configured by the man upon whom it bestowed life as well as his eternal return as memory, in which each fragment corresponds to a plural universe that multiplies its significance—its free, open and vulnerable meaning. According to the relevant logic of meaning, this apt choice supposes that anyone can alter the conditions of this malleable instrument, and even increase its historic significance and that of its ancestral poetics, thus confirming its mythic profile, its vital revolution, its change. Such a transcultural and transatlantic arrangement leaves the Polish sculptor with no other choice than to open himself up to dreams and to initiate interpretation but, above all, to feel not only with his hands but also with his thoughts—ideologically, but beyond geography, feeling the word “America” as just another of Pachamama’s children.
This experience is neither inexpressible nor non-transferable, as some believe, nor is it something alien to the Other, nor is it intangible. Dreaming and interpreting life and the history of the earth from a different contextual perspective can become not only a collective, shared and public feeling in which these works engage in debate without endeavoring to make themselves understood or to build one-way bridges toward the Other. They can also become a vision of the world in communion with the body of the earth—the first body of human beings. Migrations are the most convincing proof of this sentiment. In these works, there is no longer a single, repressed, excluded, buried voice, and even less so a unique meaning where the Other will always be outside the private experience of the artist—that is, his spirit. On the contrary, the meaning of Xawery Wolski’s work is no longer the last impregnable refuge of defeated individuality and of the past, but rather opens itself up until it merges with the individual, the Other, the self—to paraphrase Octavio Paz. Nevertheless, it is not a memory mortgaged by European reason and injustice, trying to approach the Other while aware of its certain failure and of the fact that they will never be able to understand each other. Xawery Wolski’s memory, which provisionally places the grammar of clay and its unintelligible universe in transit, is articulated as the instrument—impervious to corruption—of that which is not only a symptom of emotion but rather has become his cultural heritage.
In these works of the earth, Xawery Wolski is very conscious of the fact that his emotional and poetic experience is not contradictory to or at odds with the very history that this same earth has conferred on us as an expression of pre-Columbian cultures. His work neither negotiates the minefields of written language nor does it avoid establishing its own rules as a basis from which the Other can be approached without restraints. Without codes, without absolute concepts, his entire body of work boasts of a freedom of movement that allows him to more freely approach the Other by means of the invisible but solid gaps in a vision of the foreign world—a vision from which and through which he appropriates and communicates with history and his memory. In this sense, his works set themselves up as integral ways of communicating memory without time—as simultaneous memory.
Someone once said that communicating meaning and emotion, and being the image of the non-existent—of what one is not—could be among the most significant metaphysical or conceptual missions of art from any culture, time or history. The communion between the individual and the Other and its virtual extension is clearly an act of faith and liberation—a liberation that establishes the desire that perhaps will never be realized. However, it is unusual that the artist now speaks from his memory and from the future to a time when the end of history is still unpredictable, and even uniqueness and novelty continue to be tools of his work. It is a symptom of Xawery Wolski’s humility that unlike Novalis and Fukuyama, he never considers his own time to be the end of time, nor does he believe that we will be “the last ones to see certain things.” Each time Xawery Wolski does not find convincing responses to our context, he does not seek to escape into the future nor into the end of time and history, but rather, gives his ex-votos or homunculi their memory, ancestors, earth and water, in order to freeze and to flow, to pacify the tides and favor the life to come, which must necessarily come with creation.
Life goes on because death continues to recite from memory. Before works that are so expressive yet so simple (because they are essential), like these by Xawery Wolski, the viewer ends up convinced (if he isn’t already) that art is not dead (unlike what some still like to say) and that art has not come to its end. However, it is still at risk of being lost in its terminal stage, beyond which it could only aspire to the fire at the base of reality that Artaud talked about, which would celebrate the possibility of saying nothing, of remaining silent before death and oblivion in writing. In this sense, compared to these works, today’s art has given up that already traditional possibility of transcendence and innovation and has lost, or is about to lose, its communicative point of reference in order to probe the labyrinths of the most desolate mirage which produces the sand in which we fight without faces. And it is not true that today’s art has become an addendum to anthropology, a theoretical narrative that refers artistic creation only to its own coordinates and to itself. We can still speak of what is represented in art, of our as yet multiple identity, because the art object has not died either, nor has it stopped speaking about both things equally.
Xawery Wolski apparently theorizes about his own creation through the aesthetic presentation of his polyvalent and essential oeuvre that on the one hand, saves him from the death of art and on the other, satisfies the critic’s interest in gaining access to a memory also constructed from innumerable presumed and susceptible omissions.
A love for the land and for the world is merely a continuation of the ability to speak to it while avoiding and discarding technical innovation (potting wheel, metal, glazes, memory…). When we reach the point where art objects speak to us of the body of the land and the land of the body, where we find it possible to contemplate the Other—all that is not the body and land of art and of the artist—that terminal stage we mentioned above dissolves, and we reach its mirage, where movement toward the Other becomes a possible experience. The artist speaking with the Other in his foreign expression then becomes a demiurge. In any case, as on many previous occasions, these moments of transition into creation are difficult times for plurality and dialogue but, whether we like it or not, they are also like all irreversible times, times of memory and forgetting, of amnesia and archiving. The formal plurality of these works by Xawery Wolski is no longer a tendency of a unique truth or the representation of what is established and irrefutable. Distanced from the aimless search for new forms, his experience—like his creation—essentially focuses on the transitional nature of earth and water. Xawery Wolski situates his work in the margin where form and content are associated with meaning. His meaning is nothing less than bringing into memory what is no longer present, and dreaming it from its very genesis. Able to walk toward what will come from the hand of the Other, Xawery Wolski is indebted to the Other (a lotus from the mud), to the life of the exceptional beings that populated the earth and created meaning, creating beyond innovation, anticipation and premonition.
At times it may seem that Xawery Wolski’s work lives solely off that debt and in the service of the reconstruction of dreams more so than in that of the deconstruction of this American memory. The representation of the future of memory—not to mention that of its rhetorical and conservative maneuvering—is right here, between the uncertain and the impossible, in the story of Otherness, of what can be found beyond the utopia we never had, of what can only exist in some promised land without space and without time. That is his creation. This is the narrative of that creation, the constant intention of Xawery Wolski’s work: to narrate the impossible—the metaphor of the creation of a new world that is ignorant of Columbus and of which Columbus is ignorant.
Art is thus a political action. To retell creation is that common dream. Xawery Wolski’s politics lie in the story’s transition from halfway between Poland and Mexico (with all the resonance that both nations may have with the spirit, with death and with the worship of the earth) to halfway between imagined reality and the dream surrounding him, between his body and his voice and the dream of the Other: the master of his story. These bodies of memory transformed into dreams of light have been created by walking among the real bodies floating in memory like landscapes reinvented in the void, in silence and in the snowy nothingness of his embroidered tattoos.
A story of the Other, of displacement, where the process that casts a shadow over everything else seems so decisive and noteworthy, because the very act of creation is situated right here. Beyond meaning, we are left with the actual sculptural object which traverses the limits of time and separates reflection from reality in this mirror of earth. This transition toward Otherness cautiously submerges us in a memory that contextualizes Xawery Wolski’s sculptures, causing them to return to a temporal dimension, a relationship with time in any of its forms. The profoundest meaning of this artistic experience is precisely that of sharing the meaning that connects the creator and the spectator by way of the art work in a possible relationship of true communication. In that sense, the artist of communication is today—in my opinion—a revolutionary artist.
As I mentioned earlier, Xawery Wolski’s commitment to spirituality—that is, to that which cannot be represented—is very close to a faith, which implies accepting what we are not able to see even when in its presence. As an art object, faith and the unrepresentable presuppose a desire for representation that will never be fixed, complete, definitive. This devotion to mysticism—and to what the rest of us presuppose we would not be able to see—and the devotion to that which cannot be represented is the destiny that Xawery Wolski has chosen.
In any case, let us recall that we are dealing with something as complex and plural as memory and the clay of creation, which makes us seem effectively transitory, and malleable in the eyes of the Other: in his, your or my eyes.
|FRAGMENTED TRAJECTORY OF XAWERY WOLSKI’S DRAWINGS|
American Ceramics #152, New York, Nov. 2007
By Marek Bartelik
“Just as trajectories are no more real than becomings are imaginary, there is something unique in their joining together that belongs to art.”Gilles Deleuze, What Children Say.
“Drawing is the most direct form of expression, closer to the truth than words”, wrote Xawery Wolski to me on June 9, 2006.1 This statement brings me straight to this page, allowing a dessin-écrit of a shadow and its outline, an exploration of two sides of verisimilitude. “By drawing,” Colin Eisler states in Sculptors’ Drawings Over Six Centuries, 1400-1950, “the sculptor releases his work into the round of weightlessness and freedom—in a daring return to paper.” 2 “Drawing,” Michael Newman argues, “because of its status of becoming (blot becoming mark, mark becoming line, line becoming contour, contour becoming image, image becoming sign . . . the direction of this movement being always reversible) posits a continuum of sense, from one sense of ‘sense’ to the other, yet it seems impossible to observe, or to catch hold of, the precise moment, or experience, of that flip-over from the pre-sign, differentiated, but not yet diacritically caught in an opposition, to signification, image, and meaning. It happens in a blink, when the eyes are closed.”
The story of a drawing is a story of becoming, not of a birth and a death, and not of a rebirth. Its presence is tautological, a circular one. It is a story unveiling on a plain of awareness and memory, and as such has no beginning and no end, only marks on top of other marks. The idea of the palimpsest goes back to ancient times, when scribes used earlier texts as pages on which to write something new on the same pieces of parchment. Robert Rauschenberg once tried to erase a drawing given to him by Willem de Kooning (Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953). Rauschenberg was unsuccessful—he was not the first one to fail to erase the past. In his aborted action, he whispered his wish to become an artist equal to others, which he ultimately managed to achieve. Throughout the history of art, artists have tried to “erase” other artist’s works—to start fresh, or to forget, but not to destroy. Jasper Johns called Rauschenberg’s action an “additive-subtraction,” which as Richard Galpin astutely notes—is a contradiction that suggests a play of differences, rather than an absence of a presence.4 Using youthful bravura as a license for play, artists understand the need to create a link between their art and that of the past as a springboard for artistic growth.
For an art historian, there must exist a palimpsest of thought. Nietzsche once stated that active forgetfulness functions as a “doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose and etiquette: so that it will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present, without forgetfulness.”5 Obviously, forgetting does not mean ignorance in an epistemological sense (that it, in the sense of being about knowledge and knowing). In fact, it is the opposite of ignorance: One has to know something to forget it. Michel Foucault argued that, “[m]aybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are.”6 We believed him in the 1980s, but he himself was the first one to acknowledge that we cannot refuse what we did not discover but rather learned earlier. Jacques Derrida helped remind us that a gradual becoming is not a destination.
With its emphasis on hybridism and heterogeneity of artistic expressions and mediums, so-called postmodernism poses a challenge to totalizing approaches to and in art. In her text on modern sculpture, Rosalind Krauss argues that “[w]ithin the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium . . . but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium—photography, books, lines on wall, or sculpture itself—might be used.”7 By now, Krauss’s statement is obvious. What has been called postmodernism in art, I call a mannerist phase in the development of the arts, similar to the one that followed the Renaissance, before the Baroque.8 This is an optimistic assessment of the current state of the arts, based in a refusal to accept that we are in the era of the end of art, or the end of history, or the end of whatever. Postmodernism could also be connected to a synchronicity of different times and spaces during and in which an artist acts—going against the linearity of history, at least as it is recorded in the West. Hal Foster warns against the linear construct of knowledge: “Postmodernism does exploit late-modernist dogma . . . [t]his is clearest as regards the mediums: identified with modernism, they are foreclosed with it. The fallacy here is to derive a logic of a medium from historical examples and then see it (the logic) apart from the examples as somehow essential to the medium.”9 On a general level, to paraphrase Paul Auster, every work of art is an image of solitude, and as such it must be treated individually before put in a broader context.
It might be puzzling that so many sculptors turn out to be such good draftsmen. The simplest answer is that leaving a mark on a background surface with an implement allows sculptors to see form on a two-dimensional surface before they engage in the more time- and labor-consuming act of sculpting. The line, as a conceptual device, is a perfect vehicle for communicating ideas before they become form. It is also a visualization of the act of anticipation. However, making a drawing (rather than a sketch) is an independent action, which takes place apart from making a sculpture. The movement associated with that process might be from something toward nothing, toward the ultimate absence of things from themselves, as Jean Baudrillard would say. “Behind every fragment of reality, something has to have disappeared in order to ensure the continuity of the nothing—without, however, yielding to the temptation of annihilation, for disappearance has to remain a living disappearance . . .”11
Drawings reduce gestures to marks, or perhaps the other way around, for the movements of the artist’s hand and mind are not linear; in time they involve many hands and many minds. Each time I look at El Greco’s Laocoön (1608-1614, today at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.), I am under the impression that the artist did not model it on a written story, by Virgil for example, but rather reacted to the famous sculpture by Athanadoros, Hagesandoros and Polydoros of Rhodos from 175-150 BC that was found in Rome in 1506. I am mesmerized by the way El Greco “flattened” its sculptural prototype in his painting and brilliantly unfolded the sculpture before our eyes, closing the gap between three-dimensional object and three-dimensional illusion, thought and gesture, rational and irrational.
The history of modern art is rich in examples of sculptors who were superb draftsmen. “What I believe,” Alberto Giacometti said, “is that whether it is a question of sculpture or painting, it is in fact only drawing that counts. One must cling solely, exclusively to drawing. If one could master drawing, all the rest would be possible.”12 The near total absence of mass in the Swiss artist’s post-World War II sculptures (except that of the pedestal) extends into the emphasis on rich pentimenti (a set of adjustments) in Giacometti’s drawings, putting his entire work in the context of the injured world as a space for enhanced perception, fluctuating in front of our eyes with anxiety in a state of becoming—without a destination. Giacometti’s use of the pentimento might be, in fact, connected to the original Italian meaning of the word: “repentance” or “regret,” which then might be linked to what Paul Valery called drawing’s investment in haunting obsessiveness. A similar desire to maintain fragility of continuum, both physical and emotional, could be found in the non-hierarchical structures by the Venezuelan artist Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt). With their near-ethereality, Giacometti’s and Gego’s works are conversational—without uttering a word. What makes those artists speak to us today is perhaps not as much their allegiance to existentialism, but rather their monumental vulnerability, which verges on the confessional without breaking the silence.
The definition of drawing has been changing. In the 1976 MoMA catalogue, Bernice Rose identified (after Lawrence Alloway) two notions of drawing: “the projection of the artist’s intelligence in its least discursive form” and “an autographic (indeed biographical) revelation, presenting the artist’s first and most intimate and confessional mark,” in other words a conceptual and a graphological.13 She then writes: “The story of drawing from the mid-fifties [1950s] onward is the story of a gradual disengagement of drawing as autography or graphological confession and an emotive cooling of the basic mark, the line itself. . . . A drawing can be described as a structure in which lines and other kinds of marks are arranged in related groupings according to a master plan to which the whole arrangement is subordinate.”14 Stressing the material aspect of drawings, Richard Serra (an artist admired by Wolski) defined drawing as a “verb”—to suggest that it stands for process and surface, rather than for a finished gestalt that should be described by a noun. In his dematerialization of drawing, Serra proposed to join the artist’s hand with his mind by connecting both to the body as a whole, and, thus, extending the graphological aspect of drawing from mark to gesture; from “gesture in drawing to drawing as gesture” (to use Michael Newman’s expression). Whose body?— Sol LeWitt asked—as he gave instructions to his assistants to execute his drawings. The postminimalists and Brazilian neoconcretist artists (such as Hélio Oiticica and Mira Schendel) endowed drawing with an unprecedented special energy by renegotiating their relationship to the body as a locus for enhanced vulnerability. Once proclaimed as directly present in art, “[t]he body has long since become,” Francesca Alfano Miglietti notes, “one of the sites in which forms of knowledge converge, creating their own systems of awareness and understanding, a luminous field of uncertainty upon which to establish an intensely violent politics, though apparently liberating, a culture with a winking, conspiratorial tone that from time to time threatens death on the bonfire, employs tortures or promises youth and beauty.”15 As a medium related to the body, drawing is “hyperpolitical” in the way that it touches on issues of connections between ethics and aesthetics.
Here we might need to return to the idea of the palimpsest, in its third incarnation, which could be called the “palimpsest of the body,” and relate it to the presence of the viewer. Good art needs to communicate both intellectually and viscerally. The invention of linear perspective put the viewer in balance by providing a single perfect viewpoint, but it also prevented him from moving. Many contemporary artists stepped out from traditional illusionism for the sake of an active relationship with the viewer, a partnership. Still, motion in art is also inward, which palimpsest facilitates. The palimpsest aspect of art challenges the artist, while, at the same time, preventing the viewer from forgetting the past, which, layer on top of layer, is grafted onto each new work of art. In such a context, “[d]rawing,” as Newman sees it, “—which we must now hear in its verbal sense rather than a noun—thus takes on the quality of an event. But it is an event that is also a thing, in its materiality, the event of its happening is laid and preserved in lead, charcoal, pigment, and paper.”16
The heterogeneity of contemporary art not only elevates drawing to an equal status among the visual arts, but—by revealing its fragility and uncertainty—pushes it to the forefront of contemporary mediums. Today, many artists appear to be conceptually returning to the old idea of disegno (drawing + design), while adjusting it to the current ways of representation that replace the spark of the divine mind with a scientific and technological thought or, in many cases, emptiness generated from a negative form. (Since Marcia Tucker’s 1978 show at the New Museum in New York, license has been given to “bad painting,” defined as a deliberately unskillful way of painting, which Arthur Danto calls “a corollary to appropriationism,” and which found its way into the execution of many contemporary drawings, especially those by younger artists.17) Many artists experiment with architectural schemata, focusing on, among other subjects, the issues of camouflage, surveying, panoptic gaze, and the rhizome. The press release for the 2004 exhibition “Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art, New York” at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. includes a remark by Le Corbusier: “I prefer drawing to telling. Drawing is faster and allows less room for lies.”18 However, for younger artists the issue of truthfulness in art appears a matter of impermanence and theatricality, of “fiction-ness” (Derrida’s expression). New mediums offer artists new possibilities and impose new constraints as, for example, the concept of Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics”—with its redefining of performative aspects of art—illustrates. Today, the graphological and conceptual functions of drawing continue to merge, while contributing to its becoming.
Wolski’s drawings are in synch with the sensibility of a decentralized gaze wandering in a world of pointillist appearances. They disclose their potential without overtly stating their purpose. In his drawings, there are no key areas despite their defined structures; instead, the image dematerializes into a network of marks that extend into gestures, or vise versa. Wolski’s drawings share with his sculptures a sensitivity to the uniqueness of form, a sort of belief, which is reinforced by the repetitiveness of his motifs as in a meditation. He sees them as reflecting his interest in ecclesiastical questioning for which there are no answers. The same form is never the “same,” as it can never be repeated exactly the same both in itself and in its context. What changes is the speed of action, which is much quicker but less conclusive in the making of Wolski’s drawing than in the creation of his sculpture. At the same time, the movement in the drawings is suspended, not only because there is no way to see it in his abstract images, but also because the forms gently “float” on the surface of the paper, without leaving it entirely. Some of his modular units are endowed with a minimalist penchant for seriality and the diagrammatic. In an indirect way, Wolski follows Sol LeWitt, who, as Rose has noted, was more interested in “the multiplicity of things, especially the multiplicity of things that can be generated by a simple idea.”19 However, Wolski’s drawings retain some sensual, poetic qualities (especially in the handling of color) and an intimacy of a travelogue difficult to locate in LeWitt’s art, but more easily found in the “grand style” works of Gustav Klimt, or, perhaps more accurately, in those of Joan Miró, such as his 23 symphonic gouaches on paper from the “Constellation” series (1940-1941). (Working on his art, Wolski often listens to the music of his beloved Bach.)
Wolski began to work on his drawings in December 2002, but he has focused on them almost exclusively since 2005. He considers them a non-hierarchical, scrolling series. The first drawings were black on white; then color appeared—blue and red—but monochromatically. Gradually, more colors were added, with two, three, or more in the same work. To execute these drawings, Wolski uses Japanese felt pens and Strathmore paper. Drawing them takes time, sometimes several sessions on different days, different months, or even years. With their faint quality of line, his drawings look as if they are stained rather than traced, as if their temporality has been suspended. In each drawing, colorist arrangements are not fully conclusive; as colors can never been discarded, they find ways to re-emerge in the drawing that follow, not necessarily in a linear fashion. Wolski’s drawings are not titled—to avoid any narrative—but they are “sealed” by the words that Wolski repeats to himself like a mantra during making art: “gray,” “spring,” “shame.” Pictorially, he associates them with constellations, in the universe, in blood, or in the entire body. Wolski sees his drawings as conceptually connected to his clay models, which he produces for his sculptures, but not to his sculptures per se. For him, clay is as an agent of continuity: it belongs to the earth and as such has to be part of the continuum of ideas and the matter. Interestingly enough, in the story of the “Corinthian Maid,” the first drawing—an outline on the wall of the shadow of a beloved face—became a work of art when the outline was transformed into a clay relief.
Made during a period of transition in his life, Wolski’s drawings are also about being transported from one place to another, both mentally and physically. When Piet Mondrian created his spectacular Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943) after moving to New York, he submerged himself in a physical and mental experience of life in a great metropolis, and then “elevated” himself to the point where that experience was transcendental, while graspable from above in a work of art. Wolski, who recently moved to Manhattan, has produced his own visual record of experience in a great metropolis, which, in this era of incertitude, is less totalizing, more fragmented, and more inconclusive than that of the Dutch painter, but similarly “heroic.” If Mondrian’s “aerosurveying” is about order, Wolski’s drawings are about the possibility of order in disequilibrium; they record what is here and now in a place that derives its remoteness from moving in time in a contingent world.
In a non-conclusive way, these drawings suggest organic origins, often looking like an artistic representation of a colony of bacteria viewed through a microscope. Being “environmental,” Wolski’s drawings might be additionally inhabited by the artist himself. As such, they are objects. Despite, or because of, the artist’s stated desire to avoid personal referents, they may allude to them. Wolski’s father was a scientist responsible for growing new genetic types of wheat in Poland. “My father,” the artist recalls, “planted two types of grains side by side in soil and after they grew cross-fertilized them. The possibilities were endless. To produce the best results, he had to rely on scientific data, intuition, and chance. Actually, it was not ‘chance,’ but luck. The work had no ending, which gave it an additional level of responsibility.”20 In the context of agribusiness threatening the contamination of wheat, the issue of responsibility for genetic modification is as relevant as ever; and it causes an increased concern, and anxiety, among contemporary artists. For the first time, Wolski’s drawings are ready for public display, for a gradual becoming as “object-events” at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, placed in four corners of a gallery along his site-specific sculpture Chmury (Clouds, 2006). For the artist, corners are places of confession and physical loneliness. But they are also places for contemplation, where works of art acquire their iconic significance, accessible to the viewer’s body and mind, while remaining off center, on the edges of the frame, or off the stage. With this quiet gesture of involving his new works with the surrounding space, Wolski will perform a new act of “joining together”—and by doing so he will add another thin layer to the timeless and policultural palimpsest.
Marek Bartelik teaches modern and contemporary art at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. His latest book is titled Early Polish modern art: unity in multiplicity and has been published by the Manchester University Press in England in December 2005.
Endnotes: 1 Xawery Wolski, e-mail message to present author, June 9, 2006.
2 Colin Eisler, Sculptors’ Drawings Over Six Centuries, 1400-1950, New York: Agrinde Publications Ltd., 1981, n.p.
3 Michael Newman, “The Marks, Traces, and Gestures of Drawing,” in The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act. Selected from the Tate Collection (exh. cat.), London: Tate Publishing and The Drawing Center in New York, 2003, p.100.
4 Richard Galpin, “Erasure in Art: Destruction, Deconstruction, and Palimpsest;” Hyperlink http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/richart/texts/erasure.html; accessed on June 1, 2005.
5 Quoted from the Introduction to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, transl. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998 ed., p.XXXII.
6 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: The Archaeology of the Human Sciences, New York: Pantheon Books, 1971, p.424.
7 Rosalind E. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, reprinted in The Anti-Aesthetics: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster ed., Seattle: Bay Press, 1983, p.42.
8 Robert Smithson defined “manneristic” as, “separated from its original meaning.” See Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p.22.
9 Hal Foster, “Re-post,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis ed., New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. in Boston, p.199.
10 Paul Auster, “The Book of Memory,” in idem, The Invention of Solitude, London: Faber and Faber, 1992, p. 136.
11 Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, transl. Chris Turner, London: Verso, 2002 ed., pp.3-4.
12 Giacometti quoted in Eisler, Sculptors’ Drawings over Six Centuries, 1400-1950, n.p.
13 Bernice Rose, Drawing Now (exhibition cat.), New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976, p. 9.
14 Ibidem, p.15.
15 Francesca Alfano Miglietti (FAM), Extreme Bodies: The Use and Abuse of the Body in Art , Milan: Skira, 2003, p.15.
16 Newman, op.cit., p.105.
17 “The Mourning After: A Roundtable”, moderated by David Joselit, Artforum XLI No. 7, March 2003, p.268.
18 Quoted from the Hyperlink http://www.nbm.org/Events/news/2004/MoMA_Release.html; accessed on June 7, 2006.
19 Rose, op.cit., p.68.
20 Xawery Wolski, my telephone conversation with the artist on June 11, 2006.
Sandro Landucci Editores, 1st edition, México, 2005
By Fernando Castro Flores
Xawery Wolski’s sculpture is a swollen seed, a plethora of forms: junction of times,meeting place of all points in space. A previous time is revealed. Works that, rather than giving a sense of proximity, are presences, which bestows upon them a special temporal condensation, their particular position of nearness that is set aside, a synthetic definition of aura.
That corporality of which we possess diverse organs and multiple vestiges presupposes, in the case of Wolski’s work, an elliptical description of the subject by means of rituals and objects, a plastic obsession with things belonging to antiproductivity or to the classical attempt to represent time by nullifying it (marked by melancholy) in the still life: objects or images that circulate, leaving behind, initially, the signs of their absence in the place they came from.
|THERE IS NO HEAVEN WITH OUT A GOD. ALASKA.
The Cube as re-ligare.
Curatorial text for exhibition “Un Cielo Para Cada Uno”, Museo Textil de Oaxaca, 20011
By Olga Margarita Dávila
In this seventh proposal for the TC3, Xawery Wolski takes advantage of the airspace contained at the cube (of the stairs) to place his intervention. He uses suspension as a central tool of the piece. This leads to consider lightness, movement and air as devices that interact with our perception of the artwork. Wolski suggests to have a look at the woven hexagonal structures -archetypal forms, which are well connected to the objects made by the Cora people, also lined with threads- in order to stimulate the senses, as well as to provoke through this aesthetic impact, we shake inside ourselves and awake our soul, more over to link us with our personal sky for raise a prayer, and perhaps to ask for a halt to all the barbarism in which we live.
With a fully abstract artistic language in which the shape and colour are the sensual elements for communication, and entitled A sky for each one, as it’s conceptual-thematic link is that we can say that this artwork is like a shrine to freedom of belief (as there is no recognizable images), where are displaying prayers that float like murmured desires of each of us.
Xawery carefully tied the thread, woven on wire hexagonal structures in three different sizes. Making each one a unique object, one for each of us. Some are black colour, others purple, some other are the combination between the two first mentioned, and some more inserted, orange, green, pink, red and white. In the arrangement of objects in the cube space we can realize that he made two groups. Furthermore if we look carefully, we can see using the figure of a mirror, that one of the groups is a reflection of the platform of the stairs and the other the steps’ shape. Accurate poetic figure, What it is up is down. Due to the fact that space where the installation is placed, the full meaning of the artwork makes sense, relating it to the idea of function as linker between heaven and earth, where there is no higher power, universal vastness, or God; if there is no a human being, a believer, a living being to recognize it and give it sense in their daily walk, in your thoughts and intentions of longing, faith and transformation. For this reason at Cubo Textil Contemporáneo in this occasion, we can enrapture and relegated with what we dignifies, believe it and make a sentence with it.
|XAWERY WOLSKI : INTERSTICES OF TIME AND SPACE|
By Edward J. Sullivan
I first came to know the work of Xawery Wolski through friends in Mexico City. The great Mexican painter and sculptor Juan Soriano (whose death shortly before I began to draft this essay has created a sad gap in the chain of original visual creators of the Mexican tradition) spoke to me in enthusiastic terms of the achievements of Wolski, as did my friend and colleague Marek Keller, supporter of the arts, both visual and musical, in Poland. However, I first saw Xawery’s work in Madrid, several years ago at the by-now well-known art fair, ARCO. I was intrigued. What I saw at that moment, exhibited at the stand of a distinguished Mexico City gallery, was not an example of Wolski’s characteristic large-scale, monumental work, but, rather, a small fragment. I remember distinctly how compelled I was by that bone-white piece, a component of a larger composition. It was only about a year later in New York where he had come to live, that I was able to meet Wolski and learn more about his spectral sculptures, which, I soon came to learn, formed part of an intensely cohesive group of works that constitute a veritable galaxy of forms. Xavery and I have had multiple discussions about their shapes, materials and meanings, yet no experience is as convincing as seeing together a large selection of his pieces in one place. This book is published in conjunction with a large-scale exhibition of his art in Warsaw. It is thus a perfect opportunity to inhabit his universe and to be immersed in Wolski’s fertile imagination. I am privileged to be able to put down on paper some thoughts on the individual pieces and series that have preoccupied him over the years. I divide the following observations according to a quite subjective set of criteria and discus them within a pattern that does not conform to chronological order but to my own manner of conceiving their beauty and importance.
As in so many of the series or individual pieces by Xawery Wolski, his “Clouds” display elements that both sooth and disconcert. Entering an exhibition space where they are hovering above the floor, the viewer is at first amazed by the artist’s ability to conjure up the suggestions of the rounded, sensuous forms of cumulus and cirrus clouds within a gallery setting. Wolski concretizes and makes formal that which is by definition evanescent. The Cloud series represent Wolski’s most ambitious attempt to create an environment, a parallel world for the visitors to his exhibitions in which to loose themselves amid reverie. However, the reverie often comes to a quick end when the contemplation entails the realization of the means by which the artist has achieved his illusion. In a way analogous to the feeling one has when confronted by a massive sculpture by American artist Richard Serra, a master of the dualities of substances and weights, an observer of Wolski’s clouds soon fancies that he or she may suffer potential damage by the great weight of the spheres that represent the clouds should they fall from the wires that suspend them from the ceiling. In this series the artist creates a rumination on impossible binaries, and, in effect, on the conundrum of existence. The inherent weightlessness of a cloud is juxtaposed with the inevitable corporeality of a work of sculpture. In another ironic twist that is present in virtually all of the artist’s creations, the substance from which the work of art is made itself offers a fundamental contradiction. We are confronted here with representations of the clouds – entities that are formed by the conjunctions of evaporation of water and the wind, the most ephemeral of elements. Wolski’s clouds are made with clay, the most earth-bound of substances. In this series of simple yet psychologically multivalent forms, the artist offers a solution for this, bridging the impossible gap between stasis and evanescence, weightlessness and substance, the earth and the sky.
In art historical terms Wolski’s obsessions with cloud forms represents his point of entry into a coterie of artists who have been experimenting in both two and three dimensions with this same theme. The shape and “color” of the cloud, its infinite variations of form, and its meanings as metaphors of celestial grandeur were all at the heart of the sensibility of many of the European Romantic painters. The northern countries produced the richest roster of artists who experimented with cloud forms. Perhaps less well known than some of the others, but certainly of tremendous importance to our subject here is the Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl whose small studies of clouds were done out of doors in preparation for his large-scale studio-produced canvases. In their immediacy and freshness they anticipate the significance of plein air spontaneity in the art of the later nineteenth century impressionists. Caspar David Friedrich, hero of the German Romantic Movement, also concentrated on these evanescent forms. Playwright-painter August Strindberg contributed a series of dramatic, if somewhat little-known, paintings of troubled landscapes in which the clouds set the mood of disquietude. In the English Romantic era, John Constable contributed immeasurably to the iconography of the cloud in his evocative landscapes of the British countryside while J.M.W. Turner employed cloud forms in somewhat more overtly dramatic ways, especially in the quasi-abstract canvases of his later period.
In a more contemporary vein, Brazilian conceptual artist Vik Muniz realized a fascinating project in the autumn of 2001 in which he engaged in what could be called “sky drawing” when he fashioned the shapes of clouds in the sky over Manhattan by having a tiny airplane fly over New York City and outline the forms of clouds for the observers below. Xawery Wolski is therefore within a long line of artists (which includes many more than those I have mentioned here) for whom the cloud form serves as a vehicle for contemplation and creativity.
The definition of a chain involves both positive connotations (as in linking together of friends, or like-minded people), as well as negative associations (bondage, slavery, indebtedness). Xawery Wolski has spent a great deal of artistic and emotional energy on decoding and re-configuring all of the possible metaphors inherent within this shape in the creation of his multiple series of terracotta chains. Outside the Rufino Tamayo Museum of International Contemporary Art in Mexico City there is a large sculptural mass by Wolski. It is formed of seemingly hundreds of intertwined chains. They are a shiny, polished white. This mass of chains is not threatening; rather, it is comforting and reassuring, as the potentially oppressive energy represented by these forms has been harnessed and rendered harmless. It is, instead, an intriguing study in mass. Each link is an organic, rounded, sensual form. The tactile qualities of each component beckon the viewer to caress them and experience their substance. However, in other situations Wolski has created chains that are more serpentine, more threatening, conjuring up mostly-forgotten memories of servitude, slavery and forced movement of people from one environment to another. His black chains have often been exhibited in neat rows – one after another. These are especially sinister in so far as they suggest the inevitable lines of enchained slaves as they made their ways in the bowels of ships crossing the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas. The often-rough surfaces of the terracotta speak eloquently of the flesh that has been constrained by them, making it coarse and jagged. Here Wolski plays and experiments with the denial of the inherent properties of materials. Terracotta simulates a far heavier substance – iron. The clay from which his chains are fashioned could be easily cracked and broken while the iron or steel or “real” chains is virtually unbreakable. Illusion and reality are penetrable, interchangeable, and our senses are confused when we observe these fragile yet resistant pieces.
Retablos, Ex-Votos, Love Letter
Forty elements: 40 boxes set in four rows of ten boxes hanging on a wall. Each box is made of the inevitable terracotta, the primal earth element. Each is provided with two doors that open onto an inner niche-like space. These retablos call to mind much more than simple containers. They are connected by a thread of space and time to the traditions of many societies who carefully guard relics or mementos of sacred persons within a covered space. Within the aura of this piece the wall plays as integral a role as do the elements themselves. It is a support, a backdrop or screen against which we observe the individual components of the work, each functioning in tandem with the other, to conjure up, for example, the screens in Byzantine churches that shield the mysteries performed by the priests from the worshippers, or the altar screens or church walls of other Christian denominations on which are hung the relics of long-disappeared but revered saints. “Retablos” has the connotation of absence. The boxes may have contained sacred substances, but they have been removed, plundered perhaps, and their doors are left ajar or as gaping holes that lead only to dim memories of the miraculous.
Related to the implied miracles within the retablos are the artist’s representations of organs, small depictions of lips, a nipple, a nose or clasped hands. While a sense of concrete physicality is brought to our minds, so is the ancient tradition of ex-voto sculpture. In many societies the fashioning (usually from wood) of parts of the body is a sacred occupation. Such images are used in rituals of supplication. They are offered to a church or chapel and are hung on a wall as thank offerings to God or the saints who have seen to the healing of a diseased part of the body or a broken limb. The disembodied hand, head or heart may be conventionally defined as a simulacrum of the wholeness of the man or woman, but more correctly, it is to be understood as a trace of sanctification, the mark of saintliness on the body of an infected person. Magic is present in these works.
“Love Letter” of 1998 is also related in a strange way to the retablo series in that it is another piece which deals with the positioning of individual components of clay tablets on a wall. The placement of the pieces, each inscribed with a letter of the alphabet, is crucial to the comprehension of the work, which, at first, resembles a game of dominoes or scrabble. This, like so many of Wolski’s works, is deeply rooted in the history of both arts and letters. “Carta de amor” is another in a long line of projects that constitutes the quintessential intellectual quality of this artist’s production. In the case of this piece Wolski turns his imagination to the 1930s and to the relationship of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadiejda, who wrote to him while he was in a Stalinist work camp in Siberia in 1938. (I write these words, incidentally, on the anniversary of Stalin’s death, March 5). She would never see her husband again and did not, in fact, know where he was. “…I don’t know if you will hear me. I could never tell you how much I love you…” words that describe the desperation of her pain. Each word of this desperate letter is like a prayer, each syllable articulated so that it forms part of an echo against the void that is the distance between the writer and her husband. Wolski has made of this prayer/letter a concrete entity, emphasizing not only each word but each letter of every word. The letters are the (literal) building blocks in the construction of the overarching sentiment. We read the letter in slow motion?sounding out each word, just as a child learns to read. It is a process of re-construction of emotion and re-articulating in visual terms of the visceral impact of the verbal components of the love letter.
This work of 1998 represents the concretization of Wolski’s connections, both literal and figurative, to visual traditions that came before him. When we enter a gallery where this Column is displayed – this huge, imposing piece made up of hundreds of individual components of terracotta disks, each one larger (or smaller) than the next – we immediately think, however, not of the history of art but the history of our planet. The viewer has a momentary sense of ‘déjà vu’ remembering his or her visits to the local natural history museum to see displays of ancient dinosaurs and other types of pre-historic monsters. A frisson of recognition of the wonderment of our earliest childhood comes immediately to our minds…only to be dissipated by the fascination with the potential of expression of this natural form, a skeletal image of the object that allows for mobility. But then, however, we remember the passage of time within the context of modern sculpture, remembering Tatlin’s tower, Brancusi’s endless column, each of them projects that played upon the notion of infinity, uprightness, movement and energy. Wolski has taken these concepts and inserted them into the context of the organic. Human/animal bones shown upright in the gallery create a powerful metaphor for dynamism and vitality.
In his piece “Fragmented Body” Wolski created synecdoches of the human form that are inevitably reminiscent of the “milagros” or small representations of individual parts of the body that are used in religious rituals of thanksgiving for miraculous favors received. Even more mysterious and evocative is the series of works depicting larger portions of the figure. “White Body,” “Body with an Arm” or “Legs” exist within a void of loneliness and self-questioning. They conjure up not only the artist’s own ruminations on the palpability of human fragility as the starting point for visual representation itself, but they also establish a myriad of connections to the development of visuality itself. Any student of the history of art will immediately suffer a shock of recognition on viewing these works for the first time because they conjure up direct predecessors from a multitude of time periods. Wolski has become an astute observer of the nature of representation, starting from the Greek world. I do not refer specifically to the ‘heroic’ period of the Classical or Hellenistic phases of ancient Greece, but, rather, to the shadowy, mysterious and thus even more tantalizingly vague early beginnings of Greek visual expression. “White Torso” inevitably brings to mind the small, usually white figures fashioned by unnamed artists from the Cyclades Islands. These masters of the third millennium BCE made objects that stylized the human form, both male and female, to emphasize the barest outlines of the body. The Cycladic sculptures, many of which were found in tombs, massed together, probably serving as votive offerings, carrying the deceased into the next world so as to provide company and beauty, show with the barest subtly, the elegance of the slender, youthful form of the body in its first state of perfect development.
Like many of Wolski’s sculptural projects, the untitled pieces also known as “Fruits” (1998) set up deliberate tensions between the concepts of weight, mass, substance and touch. Composed of approximately 600 individual elements, and nearly filling the space (both physical and psychological) of a medium size gallery, this piece is one of the artist’s most organic works. Each “fruit” is attached by wires to a main spine or column (making this work, in effect, a distant “relative” of “Column” discussed above). It is even more flexible and sensual as it meanders at will throughout the space. There is also an implied olfactory and gustatory sensibility here; on entering the room where this piece is displayed our immediate instinct is to consume it and revel in its powerful tropical scent. Yet we are deceived and frustrated. This dichotomy of desire and disappointment, presence and absence, sensuality and coldness is at the root of much of Wolski’s art of contradictions and is perfectly encapsulated here.
Of all the manifestations of Wolski’s characteristic plays on illusion and reality, those that constitute his series of works simulating the tactility and sensuousness of cloth are perhaps the most appealing as well as the most intellectually compelling. We might begin by considering the 1993 “Curtain.” This large scale work is one of the simplest and most monumental statements of his career up to the time of its creation. The long, sensuous folds of drapery dip and bend, almost as if they were blown about by the breeze coming through an invisible window. Here Wolski’s understanding of the dichotomy between mass and diaphanousness, weightlessness and substance is borne out in a highly sophisticated manner. The eye and hand are engaged in game of definitions. What do we perceive here? In studying this piece I am reminded of nothing less than the seemingly-effortless expertise of the great masters of modern sculpture in their creations of allusions to fabric. Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol, Renoir, Matisse and others were all able to suggest the supple, graceful fall of silk or muslin draped over the body of a (most often female) figure. Wolski’s years in Paris afforded him the opportunity of first-hand observation of such phenomena in the museums and galleries of that city. However, within a consideration of the extraordinary series of articles of clothing and personal adornments, also created in the inevitable terracotta, we come face to face with the artist’s blending of stimuli, from the hieratic art of ancient Egypt to the secret formalities of Inca or Aztec societies.
The concept of “influence” presents us with a pronounced conundrum in the case of virtually every artist. The critic wishes, for the most part, to make connections between one creator and another, to search for the roots of both form and content in the art of other peoples and times. As an art historian – and not an art critic – I am equally attracted to chronological explications and patterns of ingenuity and originality. Searching in the past for the “source” of an idea, the foundations of an artist’s understanding of visual phenomena is a significant part of our work of visual archaeology. Yet in the case of the artist in question, there are many complicated layers, or even barriers that prevent us from insisting on a specific prototype for any single composition or individual piece. For one thing, Wolski is a peripatetic artist. While his initial development and training came about in his native Poland, it has been his years in Western Europe and Latin America that have molded his sense of visuality. His long years in Peru and Mexico have particularly marked him in an inevitable fashion. There he was able to observe the grandiloquence as well as the intimacy of the productions of the great indigenous civilizations. His unique melding of the things he observed in those places with his European vision created patterns of understanding that resulted in compellingly unique, and compelling modern, images. His series of clothing and adornments are among the most outstanding of these manifestations.
Wolski’s “Dresses” (Vestidos) made of terracotta and silk thread are among his most haunting works. As they hang in a gallery, mutely, strangely attesting to the body of no one, the viewer is given the impression of clothing belonging to beings from a parallel universe. These are elongated, phantasmal garments seemingly worn by ghosts or sleep walkers – women of the night or women of our dreams. Are these items of clothing shrouds that once covered the bodies of long-disintegrated mummies from a nameless ancient civilization, or are they post-modern variations on impossible, un-wearable haute couture? Such are the eerie and confounding questions raised by the presence in our consciousness of these peculiar fashions. As in the case of other pieces done to imitate cloth, these dresses defy – or rather, enthusiastically respond to – gravity. Their weight is ponderous, their textures impossible from the stand point of wearability. Yet they are not, in essence, unlike the most ambitious or the most outrageous of contemporary fashions. They are coherent with the creations that have been witnessed on the runways of Paris in October or those of New York Fashion Week each September.
The brilliant Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska has written eloquently about the series of large-scale clay stelae that Wolski executed in Mexico City.[i] I could not attempt to equal her trenchant, evocative analyses of these pieces, but I would like to offer, nonetheless, a few observations. On the primal, physical level these stelae are marks of presence – grand statements about the artist’s physicality within the urban fabric of the world’s largest, most congested and confusing city. Wolski spent long periods of his creative life in the Mexican capital and these pieces serve as testimonies to his interaction with the physicality of the urban atmosphere and the people of the metropolis. However, unlike most public sculptures, they were not meant to be seen on a principal thoroughfare or a grand public place that might be used during ceremonial occasions. There are virtually no government officials who regularly pass by and there are certainly no tourists who frequent this neighborhood whose principal marker is the Zapata subway stop.
These stelae commemorate no major public holiday, no historical event and bear no coat of arms or other stamp of civic pride, as is the norm with traditional celebratory sculpture. These pieces serve, in fact, as an anti-celebratory statement, marking not the noble or the memorable achievements of individuals, but tracing – both literally and figuratively – the presence of the most reviled, or at least the most forgotten elements in contemporary society – homeless children. Wolski had made other public sculptures previous to the creation of these Mexico City stelae, most outstandingly a major public intervention on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Lima. In 1994 he executed the “Pulmones de Barranco” (the “Lungs of Barranco,” referring to the district of the city in which the piece is set up). It is a massive, organic-shaped work that serves as something of a reminder of the impressive portal-like monuments of the ancient world. It is a pleasing, sensual shape, and stands like an imposing presence in the ocean-side landscape. The Mexico City stelae are completely different, and infinitely more unconventional. Observed from a distance the viewer would not be mistaken if she or he would make an immediate visual reference to the grand architectonic forms that stand in the courtyards of such sites as Tikal or Copan. Indeed, we have already seen that ancient structures of the Americas haunt the dreams of Xavery Wolski, and he naturally responds to them in both his formal concerns and his use of terracotta, the primal material of autochthonous craftsmen. Up close, however, the stelae take on a very different, more complex and more disturbing (but, at the same time, reassuring) character.
In his creation of these pieces the artist recruited a group chosen from the thousands of young Mexican children who, abandoned by their families, have forcibly chosen the streets as their places of residences. These boys and, to a lesser extent, girls, forage for food among garbage dumps, sleep wherever they can find shelter, and cope with the exigencies of life as best as they can in one of the most unfriendly of environments. They are utterly transitory forces within the pattern of existence in this metropolis – they disappear as quickly as they come onto the scene, leaving virtually no imprint on the mind of residents or passers-by. Wolski, realizing the transitory quality of these children who, in the minds of most, have no names and no personalities, wished to memorialize their presence and testify to their attendance within the process of life. He decided to utilize their physicality, having them imprint their hands, arms, legs, chests and feet onto the surfaces of the stelae. These monuments do not contain whole human forms, but simply reminiscences, suggestions and echoes of the children’s presence. These are, then, haunting, moving and, in many senses, positive confirmations of the lives of the otherwise overlooked individuals.
In the sculpture of Xavery Wolski we perceive a careful craftsman at work. In his employment of materials nothing is left to chance. He has metaphorically connected himself, in his adaptations and re-inventions of the medium of terracotta, to the grand traditions of both the ancients and the modern masters. References to the clay vessels of prehistoric societies such as those that existed at Oslanski (near the modern-day city of ód , and abandoned some 4000 years ago), those at Bonampak in Mexico or at Chimu in ancient Peru, inevitably spring to our minds. At the same time, visiting the Musée Rodin in Paris, for instance, also offers to the devotes of Wolski’s art another sock of recognition, as that quintessential figure in the history of modern sculpture created his sketches and, sometimes, highly finished works in the medium of terracotta. In fact, Wolski constantly bridges gaps from ancient to modern and is forever walking a line that both divides and unites periods of time and forms of artistic expression in his search for unique modes to define his own indelibly personal language of shapes and meanings.
[i] Elena Poniatowska, “La estelas,” Xawery Wolski (Mexico City: Landucci Editores, 1999), pp. xii-xvi.
Museo Rufino Tamayo/Américo Arte Editores/ Landucci Editores, Milan, 1999
By Elena Poniatowska
Whoever leaves an imprint leaves a wound, writes Henri Michaux. To leave an imprint, the Polish sculptor Xawery Wolski chose the hands of Mexican children – and not just any children, but rather those who have been wounded and beaten, those rejected by society. Having rendered a series of clay stelae, he had these children circle the pieces and press their hands, elbows, arms, knees, fists and cheeks into the clay when it was still fresh. One child asked Wolski: Lift me. I can´t reach. And the sculptor lifted him so that his torso would forever sink into the surface of the stelae.
Wolski´s experiment on the corner of Universidad de Heriberto Frías in Mexico City, and the exit to the Zapata metro stop, shows no sign of happiness. It hardly exacts a smile. It is disturbing and grim. It produces a sense of anxiety and loneliness. Passersby ask if they are cornestones because these stelae must commemorate some death. And what´s this all about? The man who shines shoes doesn´t know, nor does the man selling Mexican sándwiches, or tortas. The man behind the juice stand expresses his discord. Before, the kids used to play soccer there.
Within this immense wound called Mexico City there´s an open sore on a corner. There, a tall, elegant Polish artist- a gentleman of yesteryear- chose to leave his imprint. He had already done something similar in Lima, Peru, where he inscribed his inner body, his dialogue with matter, creating chains, spheres and circles from terracotta, iron, metal, coffee beans and the sea-snails that are the oceans teeth. Having graduated from École des Beaux Arts and from Aix-en-Provence, the recipient of prestigious fellowships like the one awarded by the Krasner-Pollock Foundation, Xawery Wolski has chosen countries in Latin America as if to sculpt us in stone or to expose our organs like ex votos and milagritos that hang in the church where we bring offerings by hook or by crook. Those tiny lungs, hearts, kidneys and the double take of those whirling paper eyes. In Peru, Wolski selected a space where there was no grass, a dirt field overlooking the gulch in front of Mario Vargas Llosa´s private residence. People left their garbage in that lot. Wolski transformed it into a plaza by building a clay sculpture measuring fifteen feet called “Pulmones de Barranco” (Barranco Lungs), a specific moisture-resistant mix so that mold wouldn´t eat away at the clay. To this clay Wolski adds plaster, cement, lime – it depends on the place and the climate- so that the piece endures at a time when everything crumbles because we use materials devoid of noblesse. According to the artist, clay is the material of the indigent. It suggests durability and the existence of an eternity defined by geogical cycles. Clay is earth and memory. It is fragile in the way our bodies are fragile. It points to the precarious nature of life and to social reality, which is so difficult for some Modern urban life eliminates imaginary reality. There is no time, no will, no space. Men and women, children and street dogs are joined by one resolve, though they aren´t even aware of its magnitude and magnificence: to resist.
In Mexico, there are children everywhere in the flesh and blood. They live on the streets. According to statistics published by the Comisión on Human Rights, they total 16,000 – boys, for the most part. They live, they roam, they steal, they get high and perish on the streets. More than 3,000 are under the age of six. More than 1,000 are two years old or younger. They sniff glue or paint thinner through a ball of crumpled rag soaked in blue or some other solvent. They seek escape. They dissípate I like it. I see shapes. They have no future.
They sleep in culverts and drains, at the Dico store in front of the Buenavista train station, at all the bus terminals in the city (the North, South and Tapo stations) as well as the Insurgentes roundabout, in the empty lots of the Juarez or Roma districts, among the ruins left by the 1985 earthquake. They come and go, unassailable. They run by without a trace. Wolski caught them in mid-flight and told them. At least a hand; at least a foot. It is more than most Mexicans have done for their neighbors. The sculptor transformed their hands into clay, into pigment , a landscape and, most importantly, a presence.
One child asked Wolski: Will my hand always be there? There is no one more removed from the notion of eternity that a hungry child, unless of course he or she moves on to a better life, and as we all know, death is eternal. Children live for the day. To fulfill a day is an incredible effort in itself. To reach the evening and bundle oneself in newspaper under a marquis is to be enveloped in a shroud. A child doesn´t know this. A child intuits this. Death among these children is a daily familiar thing. When one of them dies, that child will be buried by the other street children who will burn his clothes. Belongings are not kept. When there´s no future, nothing is left to be inherited. If Wolski could have covered them with his marvelous terracotta curtain nearly six feet high he would have done so- but he produced that work in 1993 before meeting these children of Mexico.
For now, neither the viewers surfacing from the Zapata metro station, nor the transients, nor those that park their car and slam the door with a brittle swoop so as to get out of there quicker, have realized yet that Wolski has done them a favor. On that corner there is no time to think about the pre-Columbian period or the seismic nature of our country: Mexico. There, Gaston Bachelard´s poetics of space isn´t worth shit-if I may be somewhat crass: after all, were outside on the street. No one is integrated, no one reflects on his or her own destiny, no one searches his or her identity and much less his or her own corner. There is no house no roof, no protection whatsoever. There are accidents though- you can bet on that. Noise is infernal and the screech of buses is as deafening as the motorcycles. Pizza Hut deliveries –pepperoni and peppers- are made on motorcycles that crash against walls, at least one casualty for each of the 365 days of the year. Truth be told> that corner has a lot of pizza, pizzazz and pick-a-peck-of-pickled-peppers, even if no one gets their pizza.
Octavio Paz wrote that happiness is a chair in the sun. No chair here. These are vertical tombstones marking the place. I don’t know if they suggest durability of existence or the limited nature of the earth and its natural resources. What I do know is that a child forgotten- no daffodils, no cotton-asked Xawery Wolski if his hand print would stay there forever. Yes responded the man from Poland.
To give a homeless child that kind of hope is no small wonder.
By Edwin Treitler
In Xawery’s work there is a sense of the exhumed fossil, the basic skeletal structure of nature: bone, shells, cocoons, stone. These he elevates into icons or esthetic networks, the connectivity he deems so essential to life. He also makes very large ritual necklaces and gowns, made from fish bone, wire, bean. These are hung on walls like museum displays of a past civilization. If worn, these ceremonial garments would connect the wearer or initiate to the forms of nature. Xawery also is fascinated by drops of water, and will draw hundreds of water drops with meticulous repetition, again connecting the network of living matter on paper.
|FRAGMENTS AND SEEDS OF A BODY OF EARTH: SOME THOUGHTS ON XAWERY WOLSKI’S WORK|
ABC Cultural, Spain, Nov. 20th, 1999, pag. 37-42
by Fernando Castro Flores
Peter Brooks states that modern narrative arose to produce a semiotization of the body, which was matched by a somatization of the story: the body must be a source, a place of meanings, and these stories cannot be told without making the body itself the primary vehicle for narrative significance. Without a doubt, this century of abstract poetics has not succeeded in concealing the insurrection of the flesh, the extreme exigencies of the figure, or that preoccupation—mystical to some—with the Face. Whether it be in a sexualized dimension, in a wide arc from abjection to the aesthetic of the post-human, in an existential re-contextualization, or a carnivalization (which I prefer to denominate “buffoonery”), the corporal element continues to be the remains to which—why not?—we assign all kinds of desires. In recent years, ideas like that of the Organless Body have had a certain repercussion on significant artistic practice, as has the allegorical dissemination of “invisible” subject fragments, like those found in Xawery Wolski’s sculptures. The Organless Body may be understood as the unproductive aspect, “and nevertheless, it is produced in the right place and time in the connective synthesis, like the identity of production and of the product.”
It is not the testimony of an original void, as if it were the remains of a lost totality, nor is it a projection of “body image.” That corporality of which we possess diverse organs and multiple vestiges presupposes, in the case of Wolski’s work, an elliptical description of the subject by means of rituals and objects, a plastic obsession with things belonging to antiproductivity or to the classical attempt to represent time by nullifying it (marked by melancholy) in the still life: objects or images that circulate, leaving behind, initially, the signs of their absence in the place they came from.
Wolski persistently explores the body in terms of dispersed fragments and organs, with a presentation style reminiscent of the ex-voto. We must keep in mind the fact that the (postmodern) recovery of the body is allegorizing multiple dispossessions. That is to say, dislocation also affects the corporality that we consider a refuge from certainty: “What I call the body,” writes Jacques Derrida, “is not a presence. The body is—how might I put it—an experience in the most mobile (voyageur) sense of the word. It is an experience of context, of dissociation, of dislocations.” As Michaux pointed out, the artist is an individual who resists the impulse to not leave clues, using materials in a territorial situation similar to the scene of a crime; the clue is that which indicates and is indelible, that which is never present in a definitive form. In an age when we have perhaps too calmly assumed a certain distinerrancy before the ideology of the virtualization of the “world,” several veiled situations have appeared, traces of differentness, indications that propel us into creative drift: “We leave traces everywhere: viruses, lapsus, germs, catastrophes—the signs of imperfection which are like man’s signature on the heart of the artificial world.”
The forceful presence of Wolski’s work does not conceal the fact that they constitute a subtle poetics of vestiges, in a narrative with elements of a coded love story. Faced with a metaphysics of total presence, and especially by means of deconstruction, contemporary thought has vindicated difference, the vestige, the supplement, the whole periphery that tradition has ignored. For Ortega and Gasset, the painting and the text “are vestiges, their imprint upon the material, full of meaning. The fact that the material—the furthest thing from the soul—is what makes the latter come to life is not a lesson to be disdained.”
In fact, Wolski’s monumental (whatever their size) works are vestiges of emotion and testimonies to life, whether in a subjective reference or in the need to define the Other, as occurred in the case of his dramatic Steles. Xawery Wolski displays a confidence in the profound reality (to paraphrase Paul Valéry) that is the skin. This discovery of the surface, together with the criticism of profundity is a constant of modern art, as well as of the contemporary recovery of that which has only apparent existence. For example, in Basement Project (1992?1993), he recorded the traces left by his own body in terracotta, fusing his identity with the material, and managing to make contact with the essence. The hands sculpted by Wolski, or those other hands belonging to Mexican children who left their prints on the steles like wounds, are signs as ancient as prehistory, apotropaic prints: seeds of abysmal origin. The bone or white forms of Wolski’s rigorous and subtle sculptures incite touch, but they also hold back, keep a distance, as if trying to protect their enigma.
I recall the impression I had when contemplating a wall at the María Martín Gallery (1999), upon which he had placed what appeared to be viscera, free of any sinister connotations, introductions to a subject that only exists as long as it remains incomplete or absent. Wolski dialogues with what I will call a “formalizing feminization,” especially in the case of the dress or tunic made with round beads that does not belong to any body whatsoever. The meaning of material imagination, as Bachelard would have understood it, assumes that elements converge to animate intangible space and to unleash the action of the imagination: “If the present image does not make one think of an absent image, if an accidental image does not determine the provision of aberrant images, an exhibition of images, then there is no imagination.”
The dynamic of absence and presence, the evocation and the opening of the hermetic—or symbolic—enclosure, oblige us to liberate our gaze from the conditioning that is supposed to come with hereditary habits. Anything that can be transmitted in the symbolic exchange is always as much absence as it is presence, and works so to have this kind of fundamental alternation which means that after appearing at a certain spot, it can disappear to reappear in another: it circulates, leaving behind the signs of absence in the place from where it came. The work of art is understood as a veiling function, established as an imaginary capture and place of desire, and presupposes a relationship with some afterworld, fundamental to any articulation of the symbolic relationship: “It means a descent to the imaginary plane of the ternary rhythm subject-object-afterworld, fundamental to the symbolic relationship.
In other words, in the function of the veil, it is the projection of the intermediate position of the object.” Consider the massive veiling implied by Wolski’s terracotta Curtain (1993), or his extraordinary dresses that link corporality with the poetic experience of the Earth: “Perhaps the piece that best illustrates this transition from humus to human is the Dress made of terracotta and Alpaca wool, whose verticality in the shape of a cross disguises a truly humble image of the human body as dust that must return to dust.” Dust (the explicit title of this show of Wolski’s work at the Carrillo Gil Museum) that simultaneously veils and exposes a body which, as I have pointed out, is absent in its totality, encoding a strange eroticism, a sensuality that I would go so far as to qualify as hermetic. Bataille feels that the dialectic of transgression and prohibition is the condition and even the essence of eroticism. As a field of violence, what occurs in eroticism is the dissolution, or the destruction of the closed being that is a normal state for any participant in the game. One extreme form of violence is nudity, which is a paradoxical state of communication, or more precisely, the tearing apart of the being, a pathetic ceremony in which we see humanity’s transition to animality: “The decisive action is to undress. Nudity is the opposite of the closed state, that is to say, the state of discontinuous existence. It is a state of communication which reveals the search for a possible continuity of the being, beyond its folding in upon itself.
Bodies open themselves to continuity by way of those secret conduits given us by the impression of obscenity. Obscenity means the upheaval that disturbs a bodily state similar to possession—the possession of enduring and stable individuality.” The body parts that Wolski sculpts, like his other unique pieces that contain floral elements or amplified views of the epidermis, bear reference to a kind of erotic theater or a hieroglyph of desire. According to Lacan, what the subject encounters in the (specularly) altered image of his body is the paradigm of all the forms of the likeness that will apply a veneer of hostility on the world of objects, projecting upon it the avatar of the narcissistic image which, for the exultant effect of the encounter in the mirror, becomes, in confrontation with a fellow human being, the expression of the most intimate form of aggression. Sometimes we become engrossed not so much in the reflection as in a transitional object: “The loose thread, the beloved piece of junk that will not be separated either from the lip or from the hand.” The chain links, balls, teeth and hands without the rest of the body lead us to the certainty that detachment and castration intervene in the emergence of the subject: “Castration means that it is necessary for pleasure to be rejected in order to reach the inverted scale of the Law of Desire.”
What makes the image remain defiant are the remains. According to Lacan, an analysis of love and desire demonstrates that they are essentially narcissistic: bodily pleasure depends upon vestiges, inasmuch as the body symbolizes the Other. As for a being that postulates itself as absolute, though only in the sense of the image, it will only appear in the rupture, in the interruption of the formula “sexed being.” The figure is what is produced, something inhibited in the design of desire: the body cut into pieces, as seen in Xawery Wolski’s masterful works, may form part of the seduction or even of perversion’s unfocused movement, in an aesthetic that goes beyond the paradigm of obscenity or the disturbing aspects of coarse humor, in formlessness as the “disorder of the unconscious order.” Cultures that develop a true corporal symbolism can be understood in the way they compare experience with their inevitable losses and suffering. In this sense, as Mary Douglas points out, they confront the great existential paradoxes. When faced with such a forceful presence as the spinal column that Wolski placed in the middle of a gallery, we may have to question how to guide subjective experience back from the domain of works of art, or perhaps how to deal with temporality—between triviality and vertigo—when we cherish the pleasant memory of an afternoon eating pumpkin seeds.
The still lifes of fragmentary desire proposed by this artist truly hit the mark; the lack of rhetoric and the visual silence they transmit are the signs of an essential plastic behavior. In many of his works, Wolski resorts to a strategy of repetition, in a code that, as Deleuze would put it, produces a kind of exhaustion. Series and progression, variations on a theme or slight differences, ritornello are facets present in an oeuvre which always gets past geometric formalism. But Xawery Wolski’s work possesses a superfluous tonality that leads us to a revision of the meaning of the word “decorative,” evading the criminal conception of the ornament held by, for example, the architect Adolf Loos, when he considered it a sign of aboriginality superseded by the logic of progress and comfort. We know the two principle historico-critical characteristics of the theory of the ornament which views it as organic expression or an asemantic abstraction are concordant, given that they occupy the precarious terrain of the struggle between secularization and symbolic-religious art. In essence, the hierarchy where ornament is situated is typical of the metaphysical difference between substance and accident.
Before Grombrich’s notion that there exists an art that we look at and pay attention to, and other creative manifestations—the decorative ones—that can only be the object of a sideways glance, we may formulate the hypothesis that many artistic manifestations which are determining factors in contemporary art consist precisely of the act of bringing to the center, to the focal point of perception, that which normally remains on the periphery. We can understand ornament in Xawery Wolski’s work as a gift: for backing away from significance, from the excesses of gratuitous and unfounded reality. Derrida has suggested that there is no talent without an event taking place: in other words, it cannot exist without “surprise,” nor can it exist without losing what is given; all that is left is smoke, rather than ash, the vestiges of sacrifice and pleasure. Insistence becomes excess, the image is multiplied until it offers an epic tale or the meandering story of a dream: what is produced is time, without the suspension of presence.
“Desire and the desire to give would be the same thing, a kind of tautology. But it could also be the tautological designation of the impossible. And if giving and taking are also the same, the impossible could be the same thing as what a thing would never be.” Wolski presents an incarnation of desire, gives body to poetic visions, delivers the fragments of a search for the Other, makes vestiges acquire a memorable or even monumental dimension. Perhaps the sculptures that Wolski denominates Fossils (1995) are in fact seeds, elements that speak of future fertility. These paradoxical (petrified) seeds converge in the protected heart of poetry: that attempt to approach the original moment. There are works that manifest themselves as a compact block of earth that oppresses us and alludes to something other. Contemporaneity is plunged into a time prior to chronology; if we consider the primitive work of art, we notice that what fascinates us is the experience of time without intermediaries, an event without a date.
“The beginning,” writes Octavio Paz, “resembles the end. But the primitive is a spiritually less defenseless man than we are. The seed has barely fallen into the hole when it fills the gap and swells with life. Its fall is resurrection: the gash is a scar and the separation, reunion. All times live in the seed.” Xawery Wolski’s sculpture is a swollen seed, a plethora of forms: junction of times, meeting place of all points in space. A previous time is revealed. Works that, rather than giving a sense of proximity, are presences, which bestows upon them a special temporal condensation, their particular position of nearness that is set aside, a synthetic definition of aura. Blanchot considered art to be our date of birth, a power of commencement, an act that arouses a present.
The seed is what is repeated, the original metaphor: it falls to the ground, into a rift in the land and is nourished by the essence of the earth. The idea of the fall and of torn space are inseparable from our image of the seed, as for Heidegger the Da-sein (the being-there) remits to the state of de-jection. Time exhibits its cracked structure, the work of art passes through that breach, the seed contains the global view that makes the fall and resurrection simultaneous. Wolski heads determinedly toward the seminal reasons, or, better said, fecundating reason. In Claros del bosque, María Zambrano points out that seeds are forms that sparkle in the “night of being,” cries that seem to become obsessions, like that labyrinth that corresponds to the scale of one’s body, figures that appear to be the origins of a reason that conceals itself in order to give signs of life, vestiges of the future. I must reiterate that Wolski’s pieces are like a gift, a geode or a treasure, elements that are literally tempestuous when the aesthetic of traumatic ornament and hyperbolic banality triumphs on all sides.
Wolski’s work—obsessed with chains, vertebrae, bunches of fruit, the beads making up a dress—reminds us that we require the hand’s sense of touch and the most elemental gestures. That aesthetic of such elemental material can lead to the image or the dimension of dispossession: “Inorganic vitality is the relationship of the body to certain imperceptible forces or powers that possess it and which it possesses, like the moon possesses a woman’s body.” The sculptor leads us from the darkness of the world to an excessive whiteness, to the evocation of the serpent, that crown of formlessness. From the classicism of Torso (1994) to the strangeness of White Organs (1995) where corporality is shattered or even tends toward the grotesque.
It may be that in his sculptures, Xawery Wolski is establishing a certain fetishist drive, in a complex sedimentation of desire. The fetish, whether that be for a body part or for an inorganic object is, according to Freud, simultaneously the presence of the void that is the maternal penis and the symbol of its absence. As the symbol of something and at the same time, of its negation, it can only be maintained at the price of an essential laceration in which the two reactions constitute the nucleus of a true disjunction of the ego. What Wolski does not want to lose is his sense of the Earth, that storehouse of meaning in which Heidegger located the “staging of the truth of art,” and thus he converts his sculptural activity into a concatenation. “Wolski invites the viewer to share his dialogue with the minimal form of original material and situates us in a realistic timelessness, almost devoid of meaning. The Chain, nevertheless, is full of times, and spaces where ‘we hear’ about pathetic, cruel or mythological pasts, about unknown presents and hopes still shut in a box; about the oppression of freedom, diaspora or settlement; it is also a fundamental symbol, the link between two beings.” This artist is a traveler, someone who has experienced the deep territorial connection of the nomad (to a world in which, to use a nihilist metaphor, the desert is growing) who seeks the land, draws the roots, submerges desire in the dark bowels, accompanies the seeds in their fall.
Wolski manages to unite the hard and the soft, which reveal the dynamic existence of the resistant world, the sumptuousness of the form and the humility of the material. “Clay is the material of the poor: it suggests durability and the existence of an eternity defined by geological cycles. Clay is earth and it is memory; it is fragile just as our bodies are fragile. It has everything to do with the precariousness of life and social reality, which is so hard for some.” From those steles that seemed to give a name to nameless death, to the Lungs of the cliff in Peru, in which he once again gave form to his criticism of a world of agglomeration and misery; from his fascinating terracotta dresses, to the drawings (Tattoos) made with a needle piercing paper, Wolski has gradually defined a sculptural territory of extraordinary beauty, where one surely rises up from the ground and darkness “to reach the light.” Translated by Michelle Suderman.
|ARTE DE CUERPOS Y MUNDOS|
Luz Cuerpo Materia, Museo de la Nación, Lima, Perú, 1996
By Paulo Hekenhoff
Wolski’s artwork converges to define an art of temperatures. The memory of the firing of the clay is there, as is that of the volcanic lava, the beating of the metal, the sanguine heart of the monotypes. That circulation of temperature indicates a flow of energy in the work of Wolski.
|THE INTERSTITIAL SPACE (IN TIME)
NOTES ON APPROACHING XAWERY WOLSKI’S WORK
By Octavio Zaya
What is given is not a massive and opaque world, or a universe of adequate thought; it is a reflection which turns back over the density of the world in order to clarify it, but which, coming second (après coup), reflects back to it only its own light.
Reviewing the texts that Xawery Wolski often writes to clarify certain aspects of his sculptural work, one comes across quotations from such canonic philosophers and authors as Plato and Walter Benjamin, Pythagoras and Martin Heidegger, Nadiejda Mandelstam and Maurice Blanchot. Other renowned Polish sculptors are also in the habit of elaborating complementary texts and notes for their work. In this sense, Wolski is participating in a well-known European tradition. Unfortunately, certain critics have used this practice to justify drawing a parallel between Wolski’s work and that of a number of other creators, but this really only serves to expose the fact that these critics’ so-called analyses are improvised and inexpert. They make no mention of the work’s language nor of the world into which it is inserted; they never explain their gratuitous references nor how these contribute to an exploration or clarification of the ambiguities and enigmas presented by Wolski’s creations. As a result, the quotations that the artist uses in his writings and notes have a silencing effect, and his intentionality is weakened by the incoherent cacophony of academic rhetoric and the inconsistencies of those who impose their premeditated notions on his work. In any case, Wolski’s artistic production since the late 1980s is not simply an accumulation of quotations nor an attempt to illustrate them, because it is based on experience and is understood through the viewer’s experience of it. In fact, the development and growth of a sculptural oeuvre obeys its own imperatives, not those of confessional literature or the private journal. But it would be a rash and dangerous act to ignore the artist’s notes, because these often condense and elucidate situations, ideas and references that help give shape to his artistic production. The work itself, however, has other intentions.
Since the late 1980s, a relationship has been developing between what is understood to be sculpture and other disciplines, especially architecture, installation and painting. They have become so closely connected that in many cases, we can even speak of a merger and a convergence, in a direction or scenario that is more complex than it may appear at first sight. Both in the magnitude or dimension of their creations and in their comprehension and handling of space, some sculptors have appropriated certain attributes of architecture and painting, while many architects and visual artists have experimented with the creation of sculptural spaces within their own languages. Technology is certainly one of the reasons for this convergence, and for the interdisciplinary wrinkle that proposes to narrow the gap between different practices and categories. But there are situations that point us in another direction altogether.
Following the sociopolitical convulsions of the 1960s and 1970s and the experimental urge that led to the development of land art, body art, process art, performance, conceptual art and the earliest examples of video art, and faced with the growing cultural disenchantment that accompanied the widespread commercialization of art in the 1980s, many contemporary sculptors have revisited and revised—systematically at times, intuitively at others—some of the expansive and tentative concerns and strategies of minimalist and post-minimalist sculptors. In the indirect attraction and affinity for permanence and change, strength and vulnerability, stability and fragility, and in the dispute between order and fragmentation, a new understanding and adaptation of primary forms helped give shape to a sculptural language that combined ontological minimalist rigidity with the inconsistencies in the eccentric interconnections that post-minimalism had borrowed primarily from surrealism. This language proposed a syntax that could accommodate what might be characterized as the space-time of radical change, where signification—the meaning of culture—was conditional and based on the adoption of an expansive, dilated perception.
Xawery Wolski’s work has something in common with this tendency, and that is a desire to transcend the Greenbergian fixation on the “invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.” Wolski’s sculptures are not only developed or defined based on the parameters of the medium and the technique, but also as a kind of materialist formalism like the one Barthes spoke of—a formalism that is in some sense based on an analysis of the world that attributes signification to the materials themselves or inscribes them with a linguistic code. And at the same time, a formalism that through its materiality, is sustained by a renewed relationship with, commitment to or dialogue with questions of being, society and transcendence.
In Wolski’s sculptures, the manifestation of this materialist formalism is at times based on material simulations or reconstructions (as in the “chains” series) and at others, on the human condition that inserts itself into the materiality of things and of existence (as in the “caverns” series); at times on material subjectivity (in the “caverns” and “observatories [caves],” and in the artist’s sculptural fragmentations based on the “body”), and at others, on extreme materialism (as in Wolski’s works which we access through “touch,” like his rooms, caverns and caves).
Wolski always bases his work on simple, primary forms, or on elemental and intelligible proposals, most of them in clay, in order to develop an evocative and open language. The artist’s medium, the simplicity of his forms and the “phrases” deployed by his work all contribute to an elucidation that provides the viewer—inasmuch as his or her ability and imagination permit—with a glimpse of the artist’s intentions. So as a medium, the industrial clay that Wolski works with, “is related to the idea of (my) work, which reflects time, the planet’s cycles, variability and dislocation.” Clay is a primordial element, with a history that goes back to the creation of man in the Judeo-Christian Genesis. Because of that, because of its infinite references, it evokes not only the notion of durability—“Existence in an eternity whose rhythm has been created by geological cycles,” writes the artist—but also man’s relationship with the earth. Thus, clay is charged with memory. Moreover, when worked by the hands with the addition of water—as Wolski does—and then fired at high temperatures, the clay undergoes an irreversible transformation, a transition to a new identity, no longer malleable, but hard and solid. All these associations arising from the artist’s medium deal in some way with time, memory, human intervention, transition and transformation—all of which are direct or indirect themes of Xawery Wolski’s work.
While sculpture may present itself as a clearly materialist art form, it also inspires a transcendental desire, an aspiration to be “somewhere else,” a will that is nevertheless an integral part of the medium in which the artist works. These sculptures are minimalist in the sense that they allow us perceive how simple, basic visual forms are used and displayed, and how structural components and qualities such as repetition, accumulation and serialization are employed. But if by this we mean that these sculptures and their materials have been stripped of all subjectivity and emotion—that they only express the obvious and only respond to a tautological knowledge which states that “what you see is what you see”—then this oeuvre could be characterized as the exact opposite of minimalism. Barthes proposed that minimalist literalism replaced the historical responsibility of forms.
In effect, Wolski’s work occupies an interstitial space. It implies a combination of both intentions, and the artist is quick to say that the forms he uses “are charged with symbolic meanings from ancient and present-day cultures. But it is not my goal to give my work specific meanings.” Wolski begins by acknowledging the significance of the medium he works in, and the difference between working with clay and working with another medium such as iron, which may seem more appropriate or predictable in the case of his chains, for example. Nonetheless, the medium’s significance appears merely fortuitous to the viewer who has access to this primarily material oeuvre. Apparently “chains,” “links,” “containers” and “clouds” never cease to be simply what they seem: “Despite the unconventionality of the medium I used, the chain is still easy to identify. […] My work comprises a return to the elemental form—in other words, to that which defines the object. The attributes may be modified without changing the object: a chain will always be a chain.”
Nevertheless, like many installations by Félix González-Torres (I am thinking of his masterful candy series, Placebo), Xawery Wolski’s monumental work wavers between desire and play on the one hand, and ambiguity and surprise on the other. While the artist does not appeal directly to the viewer’s responsibility, as in the case of González-Torres, Wolski’s work has no resolution without the viewer’s direct participation. It is not so much that Wolski is particularly interested in transmitting the work’s precise meaning to the viewer, as we have just pointed out, or in eliciting a specific response. Instead, the artist proposes to achieve an interaction between being and action, and to facilitate that which can conjugate and combine the two. On the one hand, these sculptures reflect Wolski’s interest in pursuing the transience of beauty and perfection, which functions both in terms of how the work is perceived and on a conceptual level, and which engages the viewer in the physical experience of an abstract concept; the circle transformed into chain, the darkness of the room which encourages touch, the fragmentation of the body that blends in with its context, etc. On the other hand, those symbols subscribe to a very constrained play of forms, materials and colors which propose situations and questions to the viewer.
Indeed, unlike minimalist sculptures, Wolski’s sculptures are questions without any pretension, perhaps without answers. In any case, in his drive to make the medium question itself (the soft clay that is literally transformed into terra cotta), Wolski invites us to question—and invites the work to help us question—our own materiality. In his chain series and cloud series, for example, the artist modifies the work at every opportunity, every time it is exhibited: “The work is determined by the location,” writes the artist. “Each installation is new, different, and provokes a new perspective on my work. When choosing the piece to be exhibited, I take the architectural and social context into account every time.” Further on, he writes, “The conflict between the transformations and the immanence of being is one of the fundamental problems with this work. When making changes, I modify the appearance and the form. This constant manipulation in acts of creation and installation allows us to reflect on the limitations of the artwork.”
So, this body of work functions as a space for reflection in time. Referring to his chain series, the artist explains that, “The sculpture physically perpetuates itself in space, while the number of segments is unlimited, as are the natural possibilities of space. I seek to continually add new segments. Time forms a part of the piece’s very structure, its variability, the symbolism of the circle and the notion of sequence that is the basis of the totality. The work creates a landscape that is interactive, structured by the repetition that exists in relation to a given space.” Here, it becomes clear that Wolski is as concerned with the piece’s location and its relationship with space as he is with the experience of the artwork.
In the first case, Wolski’s work initially reflected a formal iconography (like an accumulation of objects delimited by the square, rectangle, circle), but the arrangement of the pieces, their dimensions and configuration soon resolved themselves in relation to the architecture of the space where they were presented. In the second case, as we have suggested, the viewer arrogates the space in relation to time, and the body becomes the benchmark for our perception. In neither case is the sculpture ratified or affirmed in images. What we retain from that sculpture is not necessarily the image of the chain or that of the cavern, or even that of the fragments of a body. As in the case of Richard Serra’s sculptures, what we retain is the realization or fulfillment of the experience, that which keeps the work alive. This is because his body of work does not allow us any closure, a definitive lock on the meaning after we have assumed its image. Circles and hexagons, lines and spirals, repetition, accumulation and colors do not provide us with a definitive and particular image. In Wolski’s case, the evocation of the experience is always based on abstraction, which has not been influenced by the culture of the image, of the media which govern and dominate all visual culture.
The media image, the ready-made image, would not facilitate the artist’s intention to question our own nature, to understand what we are, nor his search for meaning. On the contrary, and after the fashion of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Wolski explores the simplest and most primitive aspect of our relationship with the world—the “present-at-hand,” as Heidegger would have said—and what he discovers is that we originally experience things in their richness and in the multitude of their resolutions, always in a particular context. Things are not imposed on our consciousness as sensorial impressions of atoms, nor do we construct things in our mind. In our experience, we discover things based on a dialogue between subject and object. And that dialogue is made possible by the body.
For Wolski—unlike Decartes and Deleuze—the body is not a machine but rather a living organism with which we improve our possibilities in the world. Our intentional existence is lived through the body and we are our body. The body is at once transcendent and immanent. It is the “third term” to which Merleau-Ponty refers—the term between subject and object. But the body can never know things in their totality—only from an embodied perspective which assumes that things exist “in themselves” because they resist allowing the body to know them in all certainty. Things exist, then, “for me,” because I experience them in relation to my own body.
In this philosophy which we can apply to our approach to Wolski’s work, space always exists in relation to my body as it is situated in the world. And the same can be said about time. As a body, I can never be in two places at the same time. I am always in the present, on my way somewhere, having been somewhere. For that reason, experience—and also the experience of this oeuvre—is always in the process of being realized, of becoming. And as soon as I become aware of reality or this sculpture as something determinate and specific, new possibilities emerge and are projected onto a horizon as the past fades away. What we say about Wolski’s sculptures, then, is always provisional, because the space-time context in which we necessarily experience it is temporary and develops over time. As such, it is subject to change. “[The work] may be contemplated thanks to the immobilization of the object, the immediate reception (the famous ‘here and now’) and the absence of reasoning,” says Wolski.
If at first I accede to the work’s confusion and ambiguity, this begins to resolve itself in accordance with how I become corporeally involved with it. If I don’t know what I’m looking for, it’s because the work is beyond my total comprehension. At any given moment, the work may include that which is revealed to me but also that which is hidden. As we have seen, to Xawery Wolski, experience precedes abstract reflection (absence of reasoning); it has no premeditated or pre-established theme. This manner of relating—this “present-at-hand” commitment—is the primary basis, the basis of experience, that makes reflection possible.
In this reflective process, I have referred to time because the artist’s texts have demanded it, though I know that time is the primary theme of every creative project and that philosophically, we cannot comprehend time in its totality. Beyond mere speculation about its nature, our need to understand time is stimulated and compelled by the inevitable reality of our mortal lives. It is our fate to watch how our lives become elusive and pale when compared to the age of clay, the stars and the galaxies: it is our affliction, our poison. But Wolski does not refer to time as simple chronology.
Interrogating the work’s present, Wolski helps us to intercept and interrupt any efficient closure in order to capture and define being and its meaning. Throughout his body of work, time becomes humanized because it is articulated based on a narrative, because—to paraphrase Paul Ricoeur—we definitively cannot think about time. We can only experience it and retell our lives.
Nonetheless, Wolski’s sculptures are not intended to reproduce man. That was the theme of classical sculpture—of the entire history of sculpture and its verticality. On the contrary, the kind of sculpture I have been referring to throughout this article is conditioned and articulated in horizontality (that of the earth). Still, through his own perversion, Wolski’s sculptures, which are sustained by any architectural element besides the floor, stand as “testimony to the traumatic apprehension of the extended idea of verticality and its correlative dependence on the ground.” There is an aspect of Wolski’s work that understands the body to be skin (again, for Merleau-Ponty, the body is made out of the skin of the world, which is why we can know the world and understand it): that of his caverns and observatories, his dark, gloomy rooms. In this oeuvre, physical contact is fundamental, not only in order to understand the medium and the work through space, but in order to extend our sense of touch in such a way that the space of the void becomes tangible as a form. We feel involved in these pieces, and they affect our bodies more than ever, because we finally understand space to be a substance. Finally, the time has come to experience content as space in Wolski’s work.
 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961): 3–21.
 Roland Barthes, “On the Fashion System,” in The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985): 51.
 All unreferenced statements and comments in this article are Xawery Wolski’s, and are taken from a limited special edition published, but never released to the public, by UBS in Mexico City in 2005.
 For an introduction to Merleau-Ponty, see M.C. Dillion, Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology, 2nd edition (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1998).
 Robert Pincus Witten, Postminimalism (New York: Out of London Press, 1977): 23.